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The Future Direction of Democratic Debate

15 Sep

Throughout the referendum campaign – and over the past few weeks in particular – the focus of almost every major news outlet in Britain has been on the activity of international financial markets and statements issued by senior figures in multinational corporations.

As the story goes, short term fluctuations in the share prices of international companies such as RBS and Lloyds should be factored in to the decision making process of each and every person with a vote this Thursday. Furthermore, statements made by senior figures in organisations that have premises and staff in Scotland should not only be considered as part of an overall weighing in the balance of the great many issues involved, they should form the very basis of the discussion as a whole.

The great problem with all of this, as I see it anyway, is where this now leaves the state of democratic debate moving forward.

If the public now wishes to conduct the democratic process under these conditions, as large sections of the Better Together campaign seem to do, then we must be prepared to face up to the logical and probable consequences that will flow from such a decision.

For starters, if share price volatility and the statements of unelected CEOs of multinational corporations are now to be factored in to the decision making process of each and every citizen in a democratic society, why bother having political debate at all?

Why not instead simply allow Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems to put out their manifestos and see which one pleases big business most? We could simply post the 3 manifestos to the boards of FTSE 100 companies and ask them to endorse 1 of the 3. We would then inform the public that big business is in favour of the Labour manifesto for the next 5 years and that a vote for Conservative or Lib Dems would make them seriously consider leaving the country or increasing their prices.

Is that really the kind of democratic society that anyone wants?

I am fully aware that this kind of talk is open to accusations of gross exaggeration here. But before simply dismissing it, let’s just look at the situation on the ground.

Last week shares in some large Scottish based corporations suffered a small drop in price after one poll showed that the Yes campaign was in the lead. Absolute pandemonium broke out on every major news channel on TV as dire warnings were issued to the Scottish people about the extreme damage that could be done to the economy if there was a Yes vote. 24 hour rolling news coverage relentlessly pursued the story that this small drop in prices was a sign that a much bigger financial meltdown would hit Scotland if the electorate were to inconceivably vote the “wrong way” in a democratic referendum.

The share prices returned to normal on Tuesday.

But by that time the major UK newspapers had gone to print with front page headlines that gave off the impression that the entire Scottish economy was on the precipice of a 2007 style meltdown, all because of 1 opinion poll taken from a sample of around 1000 people amongst an electorate of over 4 million registered voters.

The message from across the media has therefore been clear: unelected CEOs in some businesses are concerned about independence and share prices have fluctuated on international markets (which, by the way, I had always thought they were meant to do), therefore the people of Scotland should vote No.

You will notice here that this message has absolutely nothing to do with democracy. There exists no link between this line of argument and the idea of government of the people, by the people, for the people. The question of whether or not the people of Scotland should take full control over the governance of their country for generations to come has been entirely eradicated and replaced by considerations of how some economic entities may or may not act in the short to medium term.

But it’s not just within the context of the Scottish Independence referendum that the democratic will of the people could be treated as something of a secondary consideration to corporate interests.

Britain is likely to hold a referendum on whether or not it should stay in the European Union at some point in the next few years and it is with this in mind that I draw your attention to what is surely the most glaring inconsistency in both political rhetoric and editorial policy in modern times.

For years now, the front pages of several right wing UK newspapers have focused on what they perceive to be the EU’s implicit – and sometimes even explicit – crusade to destroy nation state democracy and replace it with a European federal super state.

It’s nonsense of course but the line taken on this by the vehemently eurosceptic British press has been that the British people deserve a say on whether or not they want their country to be a part of this organisation anymore.

Power rests with the British electorate, as the argument goes, and to prevent them from having a say on the EU question is an affront to democracy.

There is a huge problem here.

The vast majority of news outlets who have provided us with wall to wall coverage of CEO warning statements and share price volatility during the Scottish independence campaign are the exact same news outlets who are strongly in favour of the UK leaving the EU via an In/ Out referendum.

But in response to the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, several business leaders and neoliberal think tanks have warned that this would be an unmitigated disaster for the British economy. Companies would leave, jobs would be lost, international influence decline and British goods might be subject to tariffs when being exported to the continent.

All of this has been said already and you can be absolutely certain that as the prospect of an In/Out referendum on Britain’s EU membership increases, the idea that Britain could leave Europe will bring about the exact same voices of fear, doom and depression from the world of FTSE 100 CEOs and the uncertainty will also impact the share price of many British companies.

But what on earth will the mainstream media do then? They cannot possibly urge the Scottish people on an almost hourly basis to heed the warnings of the international markets when considering independence only to then dismiss these concerns when it comes to the British people’s vote on EU membership.
But this is exactly what will happen.

The vast majority of news outlets in Britain will go from treating Corporate CEOs as the golden boys of the Better Together campaign in 2014 to portraying them as the most untrustworthy, scheming, self interested and illegitimate people in public life when Britain’s EU membership comes up for discussion next year.

Nigel Farage will, of course, be at the forefront of this campaign against the undemocratic interference in the democratic process of the nation. He will rant “How dare these international financiers who crashed the world economy try and tell the ordinary man in the street that they should vote to stay in the EU?” He will rave “Surely this is a matter for the British people to decide?” And when he says “I do not think that the industry that gave us Fred Goodwin carries any credibility in the eyes of the average British voter”, the British press will give a unanimously favourable write up.

But wait! Isn’t this the same press that has been relentlessly telling Scots that they should vote against the economic uncertainty and financial instability that would come with a Yes vote? Aren’t these the same newspapers that dismiss the claim that there would be a huge drop in GDP if the UK left the EU as scaremongering but thinks that the relocation of a registered head office from Edinburgh to London is worthy of an in-depth discussion?

What on earth is going on here?

Surely we cannot have it both ways. We either admit the whims and aspirations of multinational corporations who are under no obligation or duty of loyalty to anyone but their shareholders into the democratic decision making process or we do not.

It cannot be one way for Scotland in 2014 and then the complete opposite when it comes to a referendum on EU membership or any other major democratic decision in the next few years.

Those who have sought to campaign for a No vote on the basis of stock market volatility and corporate interests rather than constructing an argument about the purpose and direction of the United Kingdom and how it could best cater for the needs of its people have not only failed to make a persuasive case, they have also suggested that future political questions should be conducted in the shadow of considerations of economic coercion.

If this is indeed how they now feel, they should be bold enough to admit that this is the way in which they want things to move forward and accept that the era in which politics was a means through which ordinary people could try to tame the market is now over.

The question being posed on Thursday is simply this: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” There is no mention of banks on the ballot paper. There will be no table of share prices in the voting booth. Sky News will not be interviewing someone from ASDA in the background.

We are being asked to consider whether or not future generations of Scots should be given the right to direct democratic representation.

It is a matter of principle not pence.

This Thursday, for the first time in history, absolute sovereign power will lie in the hands of the Scottish people and nobody else.

The choice will be whether the people of Scotland choose to keep that power or give it back.


Is This Really The Best We Can Do?

9 Sep

The State of Britain Today

In Britain we have some of the lowest pensions in Europe.

This means that people retire in the UK with relatively less support than people of retirement age living almost anywhere on the continent including places like Slovenia and Hungary.

That’s right, citizens living in almost any other EU member state, including some that Nigel Farage constantly reminds us resemble third world countries, get a better deal upon retirement than my grandparents.

In Britain there is widespread media coverage of a potential “crisis” when multinational corporations worth millions of pounds suffer a small drop in share price on a Monday and then stabilize on a Tuesday.

In Britain news that a graduate from St. Andrews University is expecting to give birth to her second child in less than 9 months time dominates the news agenda while the following paragraph can only be found buried in the middle pages of a UK newspaper:

“The coroner said that when David Clapson died he had no food in his stomach. Clapson’s benefits had been stopped as a result of missing one meeting at the job centre. He was diabetic, and without the £71.70 a week from his jobseeker’s allowance he couldn’t afford to eat or put credit on his electricity card to keep the fridge where he kept his insulin working. Three weeks later Clapson died from diabetic ketoacidosis, caused by a severe lack of insulin. A pile of CVs was found next to his body.”

In Britain 1/3 of all disabled adults aged between 25 and retirement age are living in poverty and – as that well known Scottish Nationalist Stephen Fry has tried to draw attention to – support for those who are likely to be under 25 and in education has just been cut further by the government in Westminster.

In response to criticism of this truly dire state of affairs, the official government line has consistently been that we live in an era of austerity politics in which cuts to public services are the norm because – in case you didn’t know – there simply is no alternative. We are in mountains of debt and we can’t afford better support for the disabled or pensions for the elderly.

But hang on a minute! Every other major nation in Europe is struggling with the same problems as Britain and yet they find the means to provide better support for those in need.

How do they manage it? Why are the masters of the British economy not privy to the same magic formula as those in office in places like Slovakia, Malta or Estonia? We don’t even need to take the often cited Scandinavian model as a comparison here to show just how bad things are in Britain. We are amongst worst in Europe for pensions and have one of the worst records on poverty amongst the disabled anywhere in the developed world.

Almost anything could be better.

And while I’m in the mood for asking questions, how come we have a growing economy and remain one of the world’s richest countries but can’t even begin to discuss alleviating the struggle faced by disabled people or impoverished pensioners for fear of being labelled “economically irresponsible?”

Surely that’s the bigger problem isn’t it? Extreme poverty amongst the most vulnerable people in society is one thing; but not having an opposition party in politics to even suggest they would reverse the cuts for fear of looking incompetent is even worse.

Is There Really No Such Thing as Society?

Societies should be judged on how well they treat and provide for their most vulnerable citizens.

I am not one of the Thatcher “there is no such thing as society” and “let us glory in our inequality” brigade.

I believe there is such a thing as society and, at present, ours must be judged as being fundamentally flawed.

If we are destined to live in an economic environment that requires an adaptable and flexible workforce, then those who are unable to participate in that economy for reasons out with their own control must be protected from a life of poverty and misery.

Just as everyone is expected to be flexible and adaptable in order to meet the demands of the modern economy, everyone is, in theory, equally at risk of being excluded by virtue of being human.

As a society, then, we can choose to take the collective decision to insure not only the most vulnerable in society, but all of us collectively, against this exclusion risk by democratically allocating our resources to help in times of need.

Alternatively, we can decide to accept that we live in a survival of the fittest world in which some people can cope with being excluded more than others (e.g. because they are in good health, they have been able to earn more money, they were born into a well off family etc.) and thus we should not bother ourselves with anything but our own immediate interests.

Nietzsche would phrase this, admittedly rather dramatically, as:

“All-too-many are born: for the superfluous the state was invented.”

HL Menken also offers us an insight into this kind of thinking:

“There must be a complete surrender to the law of natural selection – that invariable natural law which ordains that the fit shall survive and the unfit shall perish. All growth must occur at the top. The strong must grow stronger, and that they may do so, they must waste no strength in the vain task of trying to lift up the weak.”

At present, there can be little doubt that Britain is on a seemingly unstoppable path towards rampant individualism. Not only do we have some of the worst levels of state support in Europe for disabled people and pensioners, that level of support is being cut further WITHOUT protest from our nation’s main political parties.

The point is simply this: Britain no longer has the capacity to change. There is no appetite amongst the political classes in Britain to improve the truly dire conditions being faced by some of the most vulnerable people in society. Even the media have given up reporting on anything that deviates from the Westminster consensus. The government has announced that Billions of cuts are yet to come, many of which disproportionately affect the poor and the disabled, and the opposition just sits there and nods in agreement.

But there are of course alternatives. On pensions alone there are at least 20+ other ways of doing things in the European Union – each one of them better than Britain.

Is there an Alternative?

In Scotland we have a chance.

We have an opportunity to at least try something different and show those struggling across Britain that it doesn’t have to be like this.

While there are of course many arguments setting out how Scotland would be financially better off after independence, it is perhaps best to first look at statements made by those who oppose a Yes vote first.

On several occasions during the referendum campaign Alastair Darling, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Geroge Osborne, Danny Alexander and every other senior figure on the Better Together side have unambiguously stated that an independent Scotland would be economically successful. Of course, their fundamental belief is that Scotland would be better off in the UK and they are trying their best to illustrate why that is so; but none of them have ever suggested that Scotland would descend into the economic abyss.

But now consider the Yes argument too.

In addition to Scotland’s geographical share of oil and gas revenues, the Scottish Parliament in an independent Scotland would have full powers over, amongst other things: VAT, national insurance, corporation tax, fuel duties, inheritance tax, tobacco duties, interest and dividends, alcohol duties, vehicle excise duty, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, insurance premier tax, air passenger duty, betting and gaming duties, climate change levy, aggregates levy, the crown estates and the ability to issue government bonds.

And on top of all that, think about what could be done with:

– A properly tailored industrial policy to suit the specific needs of Scottish business and enterprise as opposed to one that is dominated by conditions in the South East of England.

– The wealth creating potential of renewable energies in Scotland and the investment opportunities that would come with having 25% of the entire EU’s wind energy potential and 10% of the entire EU’s tidal energy potential.

– A flourishing export industry driven by Scottish enterprises.

– Premier research and development facilities producing high levels of innovation.

– World class institutions of higher learning attracting some of the brightest minds from across the globe (Scotland has more universities in the world’s top 200 per head of population than any other nation on earth).

– A prosperous food and drink sector (Scotland is the world’s 3rd largest Salmon producer and exports 40 bottles of Whisky per second).

– A growing creative industries sector.

– The trade from tourism.

Reaching a Conclusion

Consider all of the above possibilities and many more and then ask yourself: does anybody seriously think that a Scottish Parliament with all those powers and possibilities would be incapable of doing a better job than those currently in Westminster when it comes to the most vulnerable people in society?

I’ll say it once more just to be sure: At present, pensions in Britain are amongst the worst in Europe. Support for the disabled is truly abysmal. The government and the opposition at Westminster are explicit in their intentions to keep both of these things that way.

The question therefore boils down to this: Do we choose, as a democratic society, to spend more of our collective time and resources on caring for the most vulnerable people in society, or should our priorities lie elsewhere?

The answer to that question after independence, of course, will rest with the electorate who will elect political parties to represent them based on their respective manifestos. Some might pledge greater support for vulnerable people in society, others might not. Some might propose an increase in taxation to fund pensions, others might not. Some might offer an enhanced winter fuel allowance for the elderly, others might not. Ultimately, the choice will lie solely with the people of Scotland and these issues will be openly contested across Scottish society.

The answer to the above question after a No vote, however, has already been given. There is no alternative. The Conservatives have committed to Billions of pounds more of cuts. The Labour Party has promised to match their cap on welfare and in some instances be “tougher on welfare than the Tories.”

Be in no doubt, then, that there will be a continuation of policies that have left disabled people and pensioners languishing at the bottom of the European league tables even if Labour wins next year.

Extra help for pensioners and the disabled will not be on offer at the 2015 general election.

Of course independence might not work, and of course there will be many great obstacles to overcome when trying to go it alone. I am under no illusions that voting for independence carries risks.

But it would be beyond foolish to believe that staying in the Union doesn’t also carry risks.

When our elected representatives have not only put us bottom of the league in Europe, but have also signaled their intention to cut support even further, how many people really think staying in the UK is likely to improve matters for pensioners and the disabled?

I would submit that it will not.

Independence gives the people of Scotland a chance to do things differently. Not because we want people to live a life of luxury from day one, but because we cannot tolerate some of the most vulnerable people in society being the WORST off in Europe any longer.

There may well be great problems faced when trying.

But the far greater tragedy will lie in not trying at all.

Independence and Democracy

4 Aug

Thanks for the Support

In my last post I came out in favour of independence (see here) and received a truly overwhelming number of messages from people who had taken the time to read my thoughts. Thank you all very much.

Rather surprisingly, my post led to a number of people contacting me to ask a variety of questions. From the No side in particular, many told me that they could sympathise with my views but remained unconvinced that in an independent Scotland would thrive as an independent state. “But how would it work?” and “how would we afford it?” were without doubt the most common of all the questions that I received last month.

Although I did try to answer some of these queries at the time, I decided that it would be far better (time permitting) to develop my ideas on the future of an independent Scotland via a series of blog posts.

So here we go.

The first of my new posts can be found below and is aimed at the “how would it work” line of questioning. It concerns the dire state of democratic representation and participation in Scotland. It is therefore firmly aimed at those who believe this debate should be conducted beyond the confines of a spreadsheet.

For those seeking in depth economic analysis and reassurances about finances, I am sorry to disappoint you this time round – perhaps this post isn’t for you.
That being said, for those of you who are looking for an economic analysis of the status quo in Britain today, please take the time to watch the first 5 minutes of this video. (Click Here)

If you would like to listen to some of the ideas circulating throughout the Yes campaign on how Scotland’s economy could flourish after independence, please watch the video to the end. It is 19 minutes in total. I would recommend anyone who finds themselves saying “I can’t vote Yes because I don’t know enough about it” to watch it and many others like it from the Common Weal Project. I intend to use future blog posts to build upon some of their ideas.

Independence and Democracy

Throughout the referendum campaign it has become clear that there is only one side making a compelling argument from the perspective of democracy. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that those in favour of Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom have all but conceded the democratic argument to those in favour of independence.

I have never heard it being seriously argued that a vote for independence would render Scotland a less democratic country.

On the contrary, all of the most compelling arguments flow in the other direction and would include: the guarantee that Scotland will always get the government it votes for; the assurance that decisions impacting upon the lives of Scottish citizens will be taken by a parliament directly elected by the Scottish people; an electoral system based on a type of proportional representation; a chance for smaller parties – and even for parties not yet in existence – to flourish and contribute to the national discourse; the opportunity to draft a constitution fitting for the 21st century and the abolition of the absurd practice of allowing an unelected House of Lords that consists of hereditary peers, religious clerics and various other obscure characters to influence government legislation. (On that last point consider this: there are only 2 nation states on earth that have unelected religious clerics sitting in their legislature – Britain… and Iran.)

As a bare minimum, democracy must contain an element of dignity. The right to not only elect candidates who you believe will best represent you and your fellow citizens; but also the right to hold those representatives to account through participating in the robust political life of the community should be a profoundly empowering experience.

In Scotland, though, we are so far behind other European nation states when it comes to democratic representation and active participation that it is quite frankly embarrassing.

I have drawn upon these statistics in a previous post. I make no apologies for doing so again here.

Scotland currently has 32 local councils. The UK as a whole has 406.

This means that at a sub – national government level both Scotland and the UK are lagging far behind continental Europe when it comes to democratic representation.

1.) Number of sub-national governments

– Austria: 2,357
– Denmark: 98
– Finland: 336
– France: 36,697
– Germany: 11,553
– Italy: 8,094
– Spain: 8,116
– UK: 406
– Scotland: 32

With such a small number of local councils comes the obvious problem of population size per local authority. Once again we are miles behind what one might consider to be the norm when taking a look at other European countries. The sheer size of local authorities in Scotland and the UK as a whole render local decision making all but impossible.

The average population size per UK council is 152, 680. In Scotland, its 163,200

2.) Average population size per council

– Austria : 3,560
– Denmark: 56, 590
– Finland: 15, 960
– France: 1,770
– Germany: 7,080
– Italy: 7,470
– Spain: 5, 680
– UK: 152, 680
– Scotland: 163,200

It should therefore come as no surprise to discover that turn out at local elections in the UK – and in Scotland in particular where we have a local council that is geographically larger than Belgium! – is so low.

3.) Turnout at local elections

– Austria: 73%
– Denmark: 69%
– Finland: 61%
– France: 64%
– Germany: 60%
– Italy: 75%
– Spain: 73%
– UK : 36%
– Scotland: 32%

The fundamental problem therefore is that decisions which influence everyday life in our local communities are taken far too far away from the people they are intended to apply to.

As Lesley Riddoch points out in her excellent book Blossom – What Scotland Needs To Flourish : “In Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium, towns like St. Andrews, Saltcoats, Kirkcaldy, Fort William, Kelso, Pitlochry or Methil and islands like Barra, North Uist, Westray and Uist have their own councils.”

But not in Scotland, the least locally empowered country in the developed world. Take Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany, for example. It has twice the population of Scotland and a total of nearly 24,000 elected representatives. Scotland as a whole has a grand total of 1,416.

According to the latest Scottish Household Survey, only 22% of Scots think that they can have any impact on the way their local area functions.

With such low levels of confidence in the capacity for citizens to actively contribute to their local communities, then, is it any wonder that turnouts are so low at election time?

One of the major – but by no means the only – problems here is a piece of Westminster legislation that was passed during John Major’s time as Prime Minister. The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 created the current local government structure of 32 unitary authorities covering the whole of Scotland.

As a result, it is only by virtue of different Westminster legislation or independence that any substantial change could be achieved. (Unless of course you are quite content with the status quo in which people voting to put a plaque up on a wall in Biggar have to send their council representative 40 miles down the road to South Lanarkshire Council to ask for permission.)

Remember: it isn’t normal to be this rubbish.

In addition to the absurd size of Councils in Scotland and the UK, another considerable problem here is that of money. Once again, by any measure of comparison, the UK and Scotland are far, far behind the norm when it comes to the revenue raising and spending powers of local authorities.

In the UK, local authorities raise 25% of their budget. In France the figure is 50% and in Switzerland it is 85%, with the wholly unsurprising consequence that turnout at local elections are much higher in those countries.

Moving beyond this then – because we cannot hope to be only average can we? – in Norway they have a similar population to Scotland but have 431 municipalities compared to Scotland’s 32. These municipalities directly run primary and secondary education, outpatient health, senior citizen and social services, unemployment, planning, economic development and the roads.

Remember: it doesn’t have to be like this.

You don’t even have to look at the Norwegian model. In Porto Allegre in Brazil, for example, there has been a hugely successful programme of participatory budgeting. Since the late 1980s, spending decisions in the city have been made by neighbourhood assemblies. Thousands of citizens from across the social spectrum with vast differences in income, lifestyle and family background take part in 24 annual assemblies where residents debate and vote for funding priorities. They also elect representatives who meet weekly to carry out the wishes of the community. They can decide, amongst many other things, whether to prioritise spending on fixing roads, building bridges or setting up a new day care centre for children.

Citizens are thus empowered at the local level to take decisions that directly impact their everyday lives and administer their democratically allocated resources at a local level. The result, as James Foley and Pete Ramand point out in their thought provoking book Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence, has been drastic increases in popular participation, reduced corruption and inequality, and political education for the lowest socio-economic communities. Similar experiments are now underway around the globe in places like Venezuela, Ecuador and India.

Sweden offers another striking example here. In Sweden only those earning over roughly £30,000 per year pay any taxes to central government. Instead, income tax is largely paid to local authorities a fraction the size of those in Scotland who run virtually all of the services within that area that are used by citizens. Only corporation tax and higher rates of income tax are paid to central government. There is therefore a clear link between tax paid by local citizens and the decisions taken by local citizens about which services that tax revenue should be spent on. The result is far higher levels of citizen engagement and participation at the local level.

As these examples have demonstrated, there are so many different ways in which Scotland could transform itself into a far more democratic system. Look at almost any other country in the developed world and you will see far greater levels of engagement in both local and national level politics. But in the UK everyone seems to just accept such abysmally low levels of representation and participation as something that is normal or, far more depressing in my view, unalterable.

The question before the Scottish people then is a simple one: do you want to live in a country where decisions that have a direct impact upon local communities are taken by people living and working in those communities?

If you do, then evidently the first step is to ensure that there is a Scottish Parliament in place with full powers to devolve decision making down to the local level. Otherwise, we are stuck in a Westminster system with absolutely no appetite for decentralised decision making and which consists of only 59 Scottish MPs out of a total of 650.

Of course change will take time, and many problems will be encountered along the way, but surely this is a small price to pay when compared to the absurd status quo of not even trying.

And this goes to a fundamental point in the referendum debate as a whole: In my view, it simply isn’t enough to say that you would vote for independence if there was a comprehensive blueprint for the radical transformation of local democracy in Scotland on offer from an existing political party (realistically the SNP) but since that isn’t on offer right away you will be voting No.

We shouldn’t be looking to the future based on the constrictive and highly undesirable democratic apparatus of the past. Look at those figures again – by any measure the situation in both Scotland and Britain today is fundamentally flawed and there is virtually no prospect of changing things via the Westminster route.

We live in one of the most centralised states in the entire world in which the political establishment are more than happy to have an obedient and largely disempowered population adhere to their “stand still while we try and fix you” style of governance.

We could be doing a lot, lot better.

Independence, for all its uncertainties, would definitely bring about a proliferation of new political parties, new interest groups and new lobbying initiatives as the people of Scotland set about the task of building and shaping their own nation state.

Furthermore, based on all that I have seen, read, heard, debated and discussed with many different sections of the grassroots Yes campaign I am in no doubt that there would be a groundswell of opinion in favour of major democratic reform moving forward after a Yes vote. Ideas about enhancing local and national democracy are widespread and gaining considerable levels of support throughout the country as town halls continue to be packed out every evening of the week.

And this is a crucial point: across the length and breadth of Scotland people have already demonstrated their appetite for local democracy. Every night town halls and community centres are filled to capacity with local citizens coming to listen and discuss the future of their country. This is an achievement of the very highest order and, in my view at least, absolutely refutes the assertion made by Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, that Scottish people are “not genetically programmed to make political decisions.”

The return of the town hall meeting has shown that the people of Scotland are ready to participate in the political life of their communities. Just imagine what could be achieved if they were only to acquire the power to match that enthusiasm.

Rather than standing still while we wait on Westminster to fix us, we could, through a radically new democratic settlement, begin to think about fixing ourselves.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

10 Apr

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” is the famous rhetorical question posed by Reg during his impassioned tirade against the Roman Empire in Monty Python’s masterpiece The Life of Brian. In response, members of the People’s Liberation Front of Judea begin to rattle off a comprehensive list of Roman innovations: the aqueduct, sanitation, the roads, irrigation, medicine, education, the wine, public baths, public order… forcing the questioner to reluctantly concede that the Romans had in fact contributed a great deal to their everyday lives.

For all that is farcical about this sketch one cannot help but draw attention to the way in which it has come to resemble much of what currently underpins the debate surrounding Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. On the one hand, beneath their seemingly never ending list of grievances, one can often detect the very same “what have they ever done from us” sentiment being expressed by those of a Eurosceptic persuasion. On the other, in attempting to emulate the People’s Front in all but attire, the response from pro membership figures has been to furnish a list of Europe’s achievements to date.

In contrast to the precision of the People’s Front, however, those who support British EU membership have tended to regurgitate predictable and wholly unimaginative arguments about free markets, the free movement of people, foreign investment and environmental cooperation in an attempt to substantiate their cause. Far from having the desired effect of persuading the population that the EU has done much that is to be commended, the pro membership tactics of promulgating the feeble and promoting the banal has resulted only in further disaffection. (Anybody in need of an almost perfect example of what I am talking about here need only refer to the performances of Nick Clegg in the recent Farage v Clegg debates.)

One will recall from the Monty Python sketch that Reg is willing to accept all of the achievements of the Romans until someone suggests that they have also brought about peace. Visibly frustrated, Reg replies sarcastically “Oh peace, Shut up!”

So what about peace then? You will notice from the aforementioned debates with Farage that Clegg barely mentioned what has unquestionably been Europe’s most remarkable achievement to date. But it’s not just Clegg who seems to have neglected the point about peace. Pro Europeans of all stripes seem somewhat reluctant to stand up and show their admiration for a process of European Integration that has not only prevented what were once seemingly perpetual enemies from re-engaging in hostilities, but also enabled the great states of Europe to cooperate on an unprecedented scale. This was perhaps most evident around the time of the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize win in 2012 when pro Europeans everywhere seemed to go into hiding rather than challenge those who scoffed at the award and even suggested that Europe had done little for peace.

The greatest failure therefore is not that pro Europeans have failed to invoke the establishment and maintenance of peace in Europe to support their cause; it is that they have not yet tried.

Allowed to ramble unopposed, the Eurosceptic movement has yet to be confronted with a coherent and, more importantly, compelling argument in support of the European Union. Mr. Farage and his group of self-proclaimed defenders of nation state democracy have not yet been forced into a moment of reluctant reconsideration; thus effortlessly avoiding the prospect of having to concede anything to the pro European side.

Now, given the truly dire circumstances that those of a pro-European persuasion currently find themselves in, I would contend that as an absolute minimum anybody seeking to make a positive case for the EU must, as a central part of their argument, include its massive contribution to the spread of peace, democracy and the rule of law.

For those who, like me, were fortunate to have been born in Western Europe in 1989 and thus enjoyed a relatively safe and secure upbringing, the struggle undertaken by citizens of Central and Eastern countries to break free from one party rule and secure a better future for their children born that same year is rarely appreciated. As those nations sought to distance themselves from the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, the European Economic Community of the day was by no means neutral with regards to the fate of those who wanted to make the turbulent transition from communist dictatorship to liberal democracy.

Today, 25 years on from those revolutions, it is surely to the immense credit of the most successful association of nation states in the history of mankind that countries like Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania did not descend into chaos or revert back to one party rule but instead joined a progressive union of what is now 28 exclusively democratic states. Indeed, it would not be inaccurate to claim that many taking part in the immense struggle for independence and democracy in those countries were spurred on by the prospect of one day joining the European club and taking up a seat as an equal partner in the world’s most prosperous international organization.

In more recent times, there can be little quarrel with the point that the chance of a future re-run of the bloodshed that engulfed the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s has been significantly reduced given Croatia’s recent accession to the EU and Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro’s applications to join pending.

In other words, in my lifetime, Europe has transformed from a radically divided, conflict ridden continent to a state of affairs that may broadly be defined as a union of peaceful, democratic states. The drastically reduced possibility of armed conflict between various peoples in Europe who had for millennia been at each other’s throats is not something to be simply brushed aside, laughed off or, worse still in Nick Clegg’s case, barely mentioned at all. What we have witnessed in Europe over the past sixty or so will, I am convinced, come to be regarded as one of the most significant periods in the history of our continent.

The first question to be put to the “what has Europe ever done for us” brigade therefore is whether or not they believe democracy and binding human rights commitments would have come to nations from the Baltics to the Balkans had it not been for a concerted European effort to promote such aims and welcome those who sought to further their advance on board?

The answer is blatantly obvious to anyone with even a scintilla of common sense and yet everyone knows that Farage and Co. couldn’t possibly be seen to be conceding anything to the pro- European side. And this is why it is simply bizarre that nobody ever seems to put Farage under pressure to admit that without a united Europe much of what we take for granted today would simply not have been possible.

So far, all that we have learned from this self-appointed crusader for nation state democracy when put under the spotlight on matters of foreign policy is that he is a supporter of the Putin way of doing things. Yes, that’s right, the same Putin who is nostalgic for a Russian imperialist era in which those same Central and Eastern European states that now sit at the EU table were so desperate to see the back of. So much for nation state democracy eh Nigel?

Looking forward then, given the unarguable level of success to date, and despite enduring the worst financial crisis in many decades, can there really be anybody out there who seriously believes that the challenges of the next 25 years will be best met by reverting back to the parochial, national self-interest model that UKIP so openly champion? Can it really be suggested with a straight face that a world in which borders are re-instated and compromise and cooperation is shelved is the best way to achieve a more peaceful and prosperous continent?

According to the a-historical Farage it certainly is. In fact, he would go even further and state that not only would Britain fare much better economically on its own, it would also be safer on accounts of it breaking free from the perceived dangers of a united European response to international crises. Quite how retreating into a single nation shell instead of speaking in concert with 27 other nations will make one safer vis a vis acts of aggression around the world is beyond me. But then again, in Farage’s Britain there would be no need for a response to international events of note ever again. Britain would adopt what appears to be his default position on all matters of foreign diplomacy – just do nothing.

The idea of peace was what mobilized the peoples of Europe over 60 years ago and the truly astonishing manner in which it has been achieved has led many to observe that the EU has been a victim of its own success. The horrors of war have lost their poignancy with a younger generation who grew up in a Europe of nothing but peace and stability and this has inevitably raised the question of what Europe is for today in 2014. Rather than battering the disaffected younger generations with mind numbing anecdotes about the free movement of goods, those who want to see Britain remain in a successful Europe must build their case upon the successes of the past and look to the challenges of the future.

Farage cannot accept the former and has no answer for the latter.

10 Apr

Slightly off the topic of independence and integration but something I wrote elsewhere concerning Brandies University’s recent decision to remove Ayan Hirsi Ali from its list of honorary degree recipients.

For the background to the story check here:

Here is the letter from Brandeis Muslim student association:

And here is the University statement.

And now me…

The recent decision by Brandeis University to withdraw Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s name from a list of honorary degree recipients at this year’s commencement raises a number of issues. Whilst the decision to offer or revoke honorary degrees is entirely a matter for the University, it is quite clear that the reason given for revocation on this particular occasion is quite simply disingenuous.

In Brandeis University’s public statement on the matter it was noted that “we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”

This simply cannot be true.

As anyone who is familiar with the work of Ms. Hirsi Ali will confirm, her views and opinions on matters such as religious extremism, the oppression of woman and female genital mutilation are to be found throughout her books and various other works. Indeed, as the independent student newspaper of Brandeis University has pointed out “in Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel, she states, “I wanted secular, non-Muslim people to stop kidding themselves that Islam is peace and tolerance.”” The same student paper also notes that she has at various times called Islam a “backwards religion” and a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” that legitimizes murder.

Accordingly, given that her views are so widely known and understood by both Brandeis’ student population and the wider public (her aforementioned book Infidel was a New York Times Bestseller), it is deeply troubling that the University claims to have not been aware of her views earlier.

From this one can draw two possible conclusions:

The first is that Brandeis University awards honorary degrees to individuals without bothering to study and consider their body of work beforehand. Whilst this would seem to be entirely inconsistent with the very ethos of an institution of higher learning, it is certainly possible that this is the case here. By publicly stating that it was unaware of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s views at the time the honorary degree was first announced, the University is in effect admitting that it did not go to the bother of reading Ms. Hirsi Ali’s New York Times best-selling book Infidel, or anything else she has written, before deciding to award her an honorary degree.

If this is not the case, and Ms. Hirsi Ali’s work was indeed studied prior to awarding her an honorary degree, it must mean either that those involved in the procedure for awarding honorary degrees are deficient in reading and comprehension to such an extent that they are unfit to hold a position at such a reputable institution, or that they did not believe that any of her views, however disagreeable, were not inconsistent with the University’s core values.

The second, and in my view more probable, reason for the decision to withdraw Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name as an honorary degree recipient is that the University had come under immense pressure from certain student organisations and/or members of staff. If true, the University should have the integrity and common decency as an institution that promotes free thinking and enhanced learning to admit that an otherwise rigorous process of consideration and decision to award honorary degrees is susceptible to intimidation from pressure groups who disagree with the views of proposed awardees. To simply claim that her views had not been known prior to the decision to award her an honorary degree is nothing more than a cop out.

If the fear of giving offence to one group or another is the threshold at which Brandeis University now intends to begin reconsidering its decisions to award honorary degrees then it may as well cease the practice entirely. You will find that no previous recipient of an honorary degree at Brandeis University has agreed with everyone and offended nobody and there will certainly not be such an individual available for consideration in the future.

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